The short-lived, fiberglass-bodied Kaiser Darrin was perhaps the most distinctive product of Henry Kaiser’s decade-long adventure in Detroit — it was also one of the last. This week, we look at the birth and death of the Kaiser Darrin, the short history of the Henry J on which it was based, and the final collaboration between the great industrialist Henry J. Kaiser and dashing automotive designer Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin.
HENRY KAISER VS. DETROIT
We talked at length about Henry Kaiser’s career in our earlier article on Kaiser-Frazer, but a brief recap seems in order. Originally from a small town in upstate New York, Kaiser had risen from very modest beginnings to become an industrial titan: builder of the Hoover Dam, architect of a formidable shipbuilding enterprise, founder of the pioneering Permanente Health Plan and clinics (known today as Kaiser Permanente), and more.
In 1945, at the age of 63, Kaiser decided to try his hand at the auto business, launching the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation in partnership with Detroit veteran Joseph W. Frazer. Together, they leased the massive Willow Run bomber factory near Ypsilanti, Michigan, and tried to challenge Detroit at its own game.
After an early flush of success in the booming postwar years, things began to turn sour for Kaiser-Frazer, the result of inadequate capital, unrealistic expectations, and a rapidly cooling marketplace. Joe Frazer was effectively ousted in 1949, leaving the company’s operations to Henry Kaiser, Henry’s son Edgar, and a board dominated by Kaiser loyalists. As the fifties dawned, it seemed that Henry Kaiser might finally have overextended himself. Still, the Kaisers were preparing a second offensive with an inexpensive new compact sedan and a new full-size model designed by stylist Howard Darrin.
THE ADVENTURES OF DUTCH DARRIN
Unlike Henry Kaiser, Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin grew up in affluent surroundings; he was born in 1897 to a well-to-do New Jersey family with an interest in the American Switch Company. Although Darrin evinced an early interest in automobiles, his initial plans involved a career in electrical engineering, beginning with an internship at Westinghouse before World War I. When the United States entered the war, Darrin set those ambitions aside to become a pilot, joining the Aviation Section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps and later helping to establish a short-lived commercial air service called Aero Limited.
Darrin’s entrée into the automotive design field came in a roundabout way. In the early twenties, he approached the design firm LeBaron Carrossiers in hopes of selling a pair of Delage chassis he had recently acquired. Darrin befriended LeBaron co-founder Thomas Hibbard and shortly afterward either accompanied or encountered Hibbard on a business trip to Paris in spring 1923. Recognizing that business was booming and labor was cheap in Europe, the two soon decided to start their own Parisian company, Carrosserie Hibbard et Darrin.
The new firm quickly became a success. In 1926, they set up their own factory in Puteaux, a Parisian suburb, and secured a commission from Rolls-Royce to offer factory-approved bodies for French customers. In October 1929, Hibbard and Darrin established their first U.S. showroom in New York City.
The firm’s prospects looked good, but business quickly dried up following the stock market crash on October 29. By the end of 1930, Hibbard et Darrin was overextended and close to bankruptcy, so the following January, Darrin and Hibbard decided to shut down their operations and go their separate ways. Hibbard went back to the U.S., but Darrin wanted to remain in Paris, so he found a new partner in Argentine financier J. Fernandez, owner of Carrosserie Fernandez et Cie. As the economy slowly recovered, their new venture, Darrin et Fernandez, enjoyed several reasonably successful years, offering bodies for high-end European makes like Delage and Hispano-Suiza.
With fears of a new war in Europe, business was once again waning by the late thirties. In 1937, Darrin returned to the States and resettled in Hollywood, where he leased a space on Sunset Boulevard. Tall and debonair, Darrin had always cut a striking figure and he made the most of his Parisian sophisticate image. His mercurial temperament was no great handicap in Hollywood and his proximity to posh Hollywood night spots like Romanoff’s, Ciro’s, and the Trocadero helped him to court wealthy customers like actress Rosalind Russell, actor-crooner Dick Powell, and singer Al Jolson. Some customers, like actors Errol Flynn and Clark Gable, later became Darrin’s close friends.
In 1939, Darrin convinced Packard chairman Alvan Macauley to authorize a factory-catalogued, semi-custom Packard Darrin, which became in numerical terms one of the most successful products Darrin had yet developed. In 1940, Packard also offered Darrin $10,000 to develop a rival to Cadillac’s popular Sixty Special, which became the basis for the 1941 Packard Clipper, although Darrin later alleged that he was never actually paid.
America’s entry into the war put Darrin temporarily out of business, so in 1943 he returned to the Army as a flight school field commander. By 1945, however, he was back in a new shop on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, doing private commissions. Joseph Frazer, then the president of Graham-Paige, hired Darrin to develop a postwar Graham-Paige car and later commissioned him to create a scale model of a Frazer car to support Kaiser-Frazer’s initial public offering.
After the incorporation of Kaiser-Frazer, Darrin’s design became — with many revisions with which he had no involvement and of which he did not approve — the first 1947 Frazer. Hoping to capitalize on the prewar glamour of Darrin’s name, Kaiser-Frazer added “Styled by Darrin” badges to its early cars, although Darrin objected, dissatisfied with the changes the company had made to his design. The badges were deleted in 1948.
Meanwhile, an acquaintance of Darrin’s, the investment broker Charles Schwartz, introduced Darrin to the Lehman Brothers, New York investment bankers and the owners of a prominent department store chain. The Lehman Brothers, who had almost underwritten the Kaiser-Frazer IPO (and were indirectly responsible for Kaiser-Frazer adopting Darrin’s design for production), made a deal with Darrin to develop a car of his own, which was to be marketed through Lehman Brothers retail stores.
In 1946, Darrin told the press that he envisioned two models, both powered by an L-head Continental six: a compact, selling for around $2,000, and a long-wheelbase, midsize sedan, selling for around $2,800. Both were technically advanced, featuring torsion bar suspension, hydraulic power assists, and a fiberglass body made by Hayes Manufacturing Co. Darrin said he anticipated a total volume of 30,000 units a year — at least 20 times the combined production of all his previous custom and semi-custom cars. Unfortunately, raw materials were still in short supply at the end of the war and molding the fiberglass body proved to be more difficult than expected. The project collapsed and only a single prototype convertible was ever built. Darrin shopped the concept elsewhere, but it came to nothing.
In early 1948, Darrin returned to Kaiser-Frazer, winning a competition with Brooks Stevens Design Associates and K-F’s internal styling team to develop the 1951 Kaiser.
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Very informative article. I first saw a photo of this car in 1955, and couldn’t believe how silly the front end looked. Now that I have googled a photo of the prototype, with the lower grill and headlights, it makes much more sense.
Yeah — the difference is subtle, but the original prototype didn’t give the vague feeling that it’s turning up its nose at you, where the production version feels a bit like a Gil Kane comic book character.
“Packard: A History of the Motor Car and Company” (Kimes) has a photo of Darrin’s Packard proposal. The front end has a vague similarity to the Kaiser Darrin but looks much better with the addition of a traditional waterfall grille. Darrin was clearly more comfortable designing luxury cars.
Like the senior Kaiser and Willys Aero, the Darrin might have plausibly survived the end of US production if it had a more viable design. Alas, the Darrin was more a styling exercise than a fully thought out production model.
Part of the problem was that Darrin misjudged the market. In the long run a two seater needed to be easily drivable in all weather conditions. That necessitated features such as roll-down windows.
In addition, unlike the Hudson Italia, the Darrin didn’t offer much in the way of engineering innovations. The sliding doors were unique but they didn’t solve a compelling problem (at least for two seaters) and weren’t particularly well executed.
Most importantly, the Darrin’s styling was decidedly weird. The car’s narrow sliding doors resulted in an awkward toy car profile. The front end looked like an anteater due to the “third eye” grille. Even Darrin’s trademark dip backfired by necessitating a roofline that had the ponderousness of a baby carriage. Not the stuff of which cult followings are made.
Ah, thanks for the tip on the book. I didn’t recall seeing it when I had that volume from the library; I didn’t have access to it when this was written.
I think the production Darrin suffered in minor but perceptible ways that the prototype did not. The nose is one — the original prototype, with its lower grille and headlights, did not have the "anteater" look, although I can see how the grille would not be to every taste. The folding top is another compromise. The original hardtop was really quite sleek; it looks better than, say, the roof of a fixed-head MGA of a few years later. Whether it would have provided decent weather sealing or headroom I don’t know, but it did look a lot better, which I suspect was Darrin’s main priority.
I agree that the Darrin probably would have had a stronger market if it had had better weather protection, but it’s hard to chide either Darrin or Kaiser Motors too much on that score, since very few sports cars of the time had much real weather protection, either. The Thunderbird didn’t arrive until after the Darrin was already on sale, the Corvette didn’t get roll-up windows until 1957, and a lot of the small British sports cars didn’t get them until well into the sixties. (I can’t say most of those rivals looked any better all buttoned up, either!) The Darrin offered no great advancements of the theme, but it wasn’t like they were selling Stanley Steamers, either.
Great article as always Aaron, a real curiosity with the sliding doors, the only comparable set-up I can think of would be the BMW Z1.
Yup, the 1988-1991 Z1 (never imported to the U.S., as far as I know) also had sliding doors. I’ve never seen one outside a museum, so I’m not that familiar with the mechanism.
I’ve only seen one, they were never sold here being LHD for starters. I gather they were a toe in the water exercise to field-test some of the technologies. They had a high sill similar to a gullwing car, into which the door dropped down vertically, but still had a normal window. You could even drive the car with the doors retracted.
The year was 1955, some time in May. My friends and I (all about 14 years of age)were standing outside our school one morning, waiting for the bell to ring. Seemingly out of nowhere an absolutely lovely little white two placer pulled up to the curb in front of us and left a very pretty classmate in our midst. We were stunned to see Carolyn slide the passenger door into the front fender. Carolyn’s father owned Bob Smith Kaiser Frazer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and after school we headed down there to get a closer look at the beauty we had seen that morning. That was our introduction to the Darrin, and I’ve been in love with the car ever since.
Wow, the car looks beautiful. I’m a big fan of old cars, and I would love to see this in person. Great article with good supporting pictures. Thanks!
Great article, thanks!
Correction, AMP’s chief was Fred Matthaei, who donated the land upon which the University of Michigan’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens are located. (Worth visiting if you are near Ann Arbor.)
1957 "University decides to relocate the Botanical Garden to 200 acres donated by Frederick C. and Mildred H. Matthaei"
Thanks for the correction! I appear to have picked up that error from Richard Langworth’s book (I suspect it was the product of transcribing oral interviews). I’ve corrected the text.
G’ma R. finally gave up on her marriage, and took a trip to San Francisco, CA, in 1954. She bot a “pine Green” [we all referred to it as “seafoam”] Kaiser Darrin–Cannot remember the exact number, but it was near the last one off the line, 400 and something. And she bot a Lilly Of France designer coat [still have that].
Not long after that, she moved to Alaska, and left the car in the “safekeeping” of Mom. In those days, cars were shipped on open deck–some slipped overboard, and she didn’t want to risk that, nor having it in a climate not suitable for rag-top convertibles.
Mom always had a tough time maintaining things, so eventually, she gave it to me. I started doing needed repairs and maintenance. But my DH was overseas, and living situation was dicey for keeping a car under repair status. It ended up getting taken from me by my covetous Uncle, who had the Gladstone Lincoln Mercury Dealership then.
He used it as collateral for a loan, and lost it to someone near Portland, OR.
That car had some toe-curling adventures–a definite “history”.
I MISS that car, like no other!
NOTHING came close to the signature sound of the Willy’s straight-6 engine, and the ride of a silk scarf floating on a breeze at any speed. The tranny was so well matched to the engine, the gears could be shifted without benefit of clutch, if the RPM’s were running right.
Whoever has it, I hope they know the true Joy of it, not just the money value! If ever there was a car that shoulda kept being produced, THAT was one. It got about 20 mpg with a lead-foot, even back then. Great memories!
Ha! Who knew? Our Kaiser Darrin might have been one of those Darrins rescued and reconditioned and resold in CA???
It must have had a supercharger on it, because Mom had it doing over 110 along Hwy 10 out to Palm Springs. From the description above, only those with superchargers would have been able to do that…it was plenty responsive!
If it was able to do an actual 110, it’s not unlikely that it had a supercharger or a different engine. However, speedometers in that era were not outstandingly accurate, particularly at higher speeds, so it also isn’t necessarily unlikely that an actual 95 or so might have been a much higher indicated speed.
I had read somewhere that after Kaiser’s bankruptcy that the cars Darrin took on were no longer badged as Kaiser. Also my memory has in it a rear-three quarter photo of the post Kaiser car with a very attractive hardtop. The photo changed my impression of the car as I had previously only thought of Kaiser Darrins as ugly ducklings.
Aaron, do you know if hardtops were routine in the post-Kaiser era? You mention “at least six” had Caddy V8……do you know the upper limit…..”.no more than ______ ” ?
Yup, the leftover cars dropped their Kaiser insignia; whether they were registered as Kaisers is an interesting question and probably depended on the state. A fair number had the hardtop.
As for V-8 totals, I couldn’t find a consistent number. Dick Langworth said at least one ended up with a Cadillac engine; Frederick Roth’s 2003 article in American Sports Cars says six; but Jack Mueller of KFOCI says “most” of the 50 non-Kaiser cars got Cadillac V-8s. You could try contacting him and asking if he has any more information, since if anyone has tracked those cars, it’s probably KFOCI. However, with conversions, pinning down numbers is especially tricky because some cars may have been converted by buyers after purchase. It would not at all surprise me with cars like that if at least a couple of owners heard about the V-8 cars through their racing use and decided to replicate the conversion.
According to living family members, Dutch installed a Caddy V-8 in only one Darrin. The rest is urban legend, as well as the “50” that he bought,
I’d easily believe that Darrin himself arranged/did only one of those conversions, but there’s no particular reason other owners couldn’t have done the same thing with their own cars either before or afterward. It wasn’t an uncommon swap at the time, since the Cadillac OHV V-8 had a good power-to-weight ratio. Since Cadillac-engined Darrins have some documented competition history, I think “urban legend” is likely overstating the point. Also, the original account of his purchasing some of the unsold cars came, so far as I can see, from a story Dutch told Dick Langworth, so if it was a fable, it was a Darrin original.
Something to consider…the cars that Dutch modified were sold as DARRIN SPORTS CARS. Since then, I do not believe that even one has been sighted. One would think that if 50 such cars were made, one would rear its grill sometime/somewhere. Of the 435 originally built, at least 270 are still around. Hard to believe that all 50 are still in barns or destroyed. I could be wrong–that would be first time today!
I want to draw attention here to what the text of the article actually says: that there had been “100 or so” leftovers that Darrin had found languishing and that he had bought “about half” of those (which is what he told Langworth), several of which were subsequently modified with superchargers or Cadillac engines. The text does not say 50, nor does it assert that all of those got engine modifications or that all the engine modifications were necessarily performed by Darrin before resale; that hedging was very deliberate. Car collectors and speculators being what they are, I assume that if someone had a surviving car that they could somehow document had been sold directly by Darrin post-Kaiser, they would have made a bigger deal about it!
I refrained from inserting my own speculation or theories into the text, but I have doubts that Darrin would have been able to sell a few dozen of the cars. Even established dealers of the time probably would have found it challenging (as the contemporary six-cylinder Corvette made clear), and in this case there were the added handicaps that the car was associated with Kaiser (whose passenger car business was imploding contemporaneously) and had very recently been offered by Kaiser dealers at fire-sale discounts.
My own speculation — which, I hasten to emphasize, is a guess, in the absence of more definitive information — goes something like this: Darrin likely did find a batch of basically abandoned leftovers and arranged to buy some of them, as he said. Of however many he bought, some probably proved unsalvageable after their harsh winter while others may have been cannibalized for parts. As for the badging, my guess (and this is REALLY a guess) is that Darrin may have explored the possibility of re-registering the cars to sell them under his own name rather than as Kaisers, or at least told Henry and Edgar that he would, but eventually abandoned the idea as too much hassle and ended up selling however many salvaged cars he was able to move under their original registration and serials. Furthermore, he may have at some point ended up scrapping his remaining leftovers to avoid tax headaches or other legal complications of the kind Briggs Cunningham ran into.
Again, all that is guesswork and verifying it would require going through Darrin’s business records from that period, which may well have been destroyed decades ago. If you have some kind of insight in that regard (conversations with family members who ended up with Dutch’s papers) and can put together some kind of documented account, I’d suggest pitching it as an article for Hemmings or some other collector car publication.
Aaron, a small correction in an excellent article. The Nash Healey shared its body with the Alvis Healey, not the Healey Silverstone(which was a cigar tube type body with cycle wings)
That’s true (although the Alvis-powered car was called the Sports Convertible), but I’m not sure where you’re seeing the implication that the Nash-Healey shared the Silverstone body. There is a reference to the Silverstone chassis being modified to take the Nash powertrain to create the initial prototype, which to the best of my knowledge is correct. However, that was the chassis, not the body, which was obviously quite a bit different than the Silverstone. Since there are photos of both in the article (and one of an Alvis-powered car), I hadn’t figured that would be confusing. Are you seeing a reference I’m not? (I wrote this article more than five years ago, so the text is no longer foremost in my memory.)
Yep, page 3 under the photo of the Nash Healey
Doh! I was looking at the text of the actual Nash-Healey article rather than the Kaiser-Darrin one. (This is what comes of doing edits in the middle of the night.) I see what you’re talking about and I’ve amended the text. Thanks and sorry for the confusion!
I’ve just been scrolling through the internet for stories of the Kaiser Darrin because it is a car that my father has told me about my whole life. His father was the manager of the Walker production facility in Jackson MI, and, as my father tells it, had the only set of keys to the plant (seems implausible, but he insists). In 1955 when my father was 13 and his brother Jack was 17, my grandfather took them both to the facility on a Saturday so they could see the car they had heard so much about up close. Then my grandfather told them that the cars at the facility had been ordered to be destroyed, and that all but a few were all slated to be dismantled that week. My dad said it was over 100 cars. My Uncle Jack was completely distraught by this news and got down on his knees and begged my grandfather to intervene. My grandfather said he didn’t have anything to do with decisions like that. “What’s done is done,” he said. “It’s a good car, but nobody needs it.”
I’ve been looking for something that backs up this version of events but have found nothing!
Kaiser had a bunch of unsold cars left over in 1955 (exactly how many is unclear), and I would assume many of those were written off and destroyed, so it seems at least broadly plausible. That it was more than 100 cars I’m more skeptical about, although that’s an area where one might be uncertain or where memory might exaggerate.